I had a couple people request this subject on my post a couple weeks back. It’s a great topic so I’m excited to write about it! Oh yeah, plus I guess my wife is pregnant or something.
When discussing any fitness program and how it fits in with pregnancy/motherhood, you very likely need to immediately expand the amount of time you think it encompasses. It is absolutely not limited to pregnancy and a few weeks after birth. We are really talking about months or even years leading up to being pregnant, pregnancy itself, and years postpartum. And that’s just for one child. If the mother has multiple children, you are extending that time and sort of revisiting certain stages of the whole cycle.
Almost all the knowledge I have gained about coaching women going through the motherhood transition is from a company called BirthFit. I highly encourage anybody interested to follow them on social media and check out their podcast. A few years ago I attended a seminar of theirs that was geared towards coaches. They have a separate seminar for healthcare providers so please understand that I am not educated or qualified to speak on this from a healthcare provider standpoint.
Every woman and pregnancy is a unique case so I will just speak about how I approach coaching pregnant/postpartum women in a general sense with some examples sprinkled in. This is also assuming that the woman has been physically active and is wanting to continue that activity to some degree throughout her pregnancy. It is not recommended that you start anything new when you find out you are pregnant.
Going through the birth process is challenging but it can also be empowering. BirthFit encourages women (who have already been training to some extent) to prepare for birth like its an athletic event. Once labor starts it can last a full 24 hours (endurance) and leave very little time for mom to actually sleep. Then once birth really gets going, contractions can last a full minute and only be spaced a few minutes apart (interval training). That can continue for an hour! Then the effort of birth itself is obviously incredibly intense (one-rep max). It’s like going through the full spectrum of fitness in one day! This is why CrossFit, or a modified version of it, is great for preparing moms for the birth process. It’s important for them to have the strength and stamina to get through the labor process and still be able to push when needed. Obviously things can happen that might result in a medical intervention, but even then mom’s fitness level can be partially what determines her ability to recover from a procedure.
And all of this is just talking about the actual labor and birth. There are countless benefits of regular training for the health of baby as they develop. But keep in mind, there will be limitations starting almost immediately. BirthFit teaches to meet mom where she’s at. So if a mom can still tolerate running and enjoys it, let her do it! Leasa has recently found running even lightly for almost any amount of time results in pain. So that doesn’t work for her. Help mom find an intensity that feels good. Leasa has also discovered that if she pushes too hard she dry-heaves.
A few of the things that they recommend modifying immediately are any abdominal flexion movements, box jumps, excessive kipping, and any direct pressure on the belly. We avoid abdominal flexion because the rectus abdominis (six pack muscle) is stretched out by the expanding uterus. We try to limit the number of times this muscle is flexed to avoid any worsening of a condition called diastasis recti, which is where the two sides of the six pack muscles separate. Limiting kipping is basically for the same reason. Box jumps being taken out is a matter of risk/reward. The added risk is not worth the benefit of doing the movement when we could easily find something less risky. Lunges and squatting deep are done cautiously as mom’s joints have increased in laxity to prepare for birth. Also, once the belly is protruding enough to impede a barbell, Olympic lifts are modified simply because we don’t want to put mom in a position to develop bad habits.
When it comes to mindset, there are many challenges to overcome. You have wild shifts in hormones. In fact, what inspired Leasa to take a pregnancy test was the fact that she got REALLY upset at me for something that was quite insane. Pile that on top of the fact that a lot of women have self-worth and body image issues on a normal day and you can have some real problems. CrossFit has been amazing for women but it has also introduced some more self-critical women to another thing that they can obsess over. Some of those women even KNOW that they are pregnant and are still critical of themselves for “letting” their performance slip or getting “soft”. It’s easy to look at this from the outside and say they’re crazy or unreasonable but it happens all the time. They have been used to feeling like they have control of their physical outcomes and now there is another human inside them who just hijacked everything! Humans have spent many thousands of years reproducing so nature is pretty good at making sure that baby gets what it needs. This can be very frustrating for moms who care about their performance and/or appearance.
My job as a coach in this situation is to try to get mom to allow herself some grace. As soon as she became pregnant, she (hopefully) had a new purpose to training and eating. If she has been puking for a week straight in the first trimester, she has no business coming in and hitting the WOD hard. She will intuitively know what is best and if she listens to her own body, we will be able to make the best decision together. I will almost always lean to the safer, less intense route. But there are actually times for some moms where the hormones peak in a way that makes them feel super strong and they are able to lift some seriously heavy weight! For some moms that is not the case. But in either case it is important to listen to the signals their body is sending them and not be so critical of themselves for taking it easy.
In my limited experience, it’s actually not the pregnancy, but the postpartum period where moms have the hardest time accepting where they are at physically and mentally. Our society in general is in a rush and the attitude towards mothers is no different. Whether from other people or self-imposed, many moms think they “should” be able to get back to what they were doing relatively quickly. They want to get that pre-baby body back. For a nation with as much wealth and as high of a standard of living as we have, the US has really poor policies in place for maternity leave. This is another thing forcing women back to work sooner than they should have to be.
CrossFit can and should be used postpartum. I believe it’s the best thing out there for the average person’s health when applied appropriately. However, what I’m about to type is the biggest take-home from this post. POSTPARTUM IS FOREVER. Once a woman becomes pregnant, that changes their body forever. Some women may be able to get back to the same weight, same body fat %, same performance metrics, whatever. That should not be expected. Once you are a mom, you will never not be a mom again. So to suggest that a woman should be able to “get their body back” is ridiculous because they will NEVER HAVE THE SAME BODY AGAIN after one child, let alone multiple. Which, by the way, is a great thing! She has been a part of this amazing process that is literally the most fundamental thing about being human and her experience was 100% unique to her. We talk about growth all the time. I’d have a hard time thinking of anything that could cause growth in a person more than that and it is my job as a coach and all of your jobs as a community to support that growth.